TALLAHASSEE -- If you vote early in an election in Florida, it’s there for the world to see: The Legislature requires an online listing of everyone who voted early and when and where they voted.
But if you vote by mail and request an absentee ballot, it’s a closely held secret, available to a few. The Legislature mandated that, too.
As more people vote by mail, including one of every three people who voted in the Aug. 14 primary, candidates must spend more time and money seeking to influence those voters before they fill out their ballots.
The practice of “chasing” absentee voters with direct mail and phone calls is a key strategic component of any effective campaign.
“They’ve had to adapt their campaigns to those voters,” says Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.
But Clark and other county elections officials can give absentee-ballot requests only to candidates with opposition, political parties, political committees, and committees of continuous existence, known as CCEs, which are mostly controlled by trade groups, unions, or legislators. The information is off limits to the public.
Yet, as it grows in popularity in Florida, absentee voting is more prone to fraud and other problems as ballots pass through many pairs of hands:
In Miami-Dade, a police investigation has resulted in the arrests of two ballot brokers in Hialeah, both accused of filling out ballots for others.
In Madison, east of Tallahassee, nine people, including a county elections supervisor and School Board member, are charged with voter fraud stemming from absentee-ballot voting in a 2010 election. Both are suspended from office pending the outcome of the “Madison Nine” case.
In Tallahassee, a judge last week upheld a canvassing board’s rejection of 40 absentee ballots in a tight Palm Beach County state Senate race because none of the voters’ signatures on absentee ballot paperwork matched those on file. Some Haitian-American voters’ ballots were rejected because their printed names did not resemble their cursive signatures.
Historically, voting by mail has been more popular among Republican voters while Democrats have favored early voting since it began in 2004.
Many election supervisors actively promote absentee voting as a convenience to voters, especially in an election like the one in November, with a lengthy ballot and expected lines at the polls.
Everyone who voted early in past elections is listed online on a state website (www.dos.state.fl.us) under the categories of elections and statistics. The Republican Legislature mandated that in 2006.
After an election ends, every voter’s method of voting is a matter of public record.
For decades in Florida, voters needed a reason to request an absentee ballot, such as not being home on Election Day. But no more.
“No excuse” absentee voting or “convenience” voting was one of the changes proposed by a bipartisan task force and embraced by former Gov. Jeb Bush after the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, which prompted historic scrutiny of election procedures in Florida.
But the Legislature left intact a provision that shields absentee-ballot requests from the public, to safeguard the privacy of traveling voters.
Pinellas elections chief Clark said voters would be concerned that anyone could learn that they requested an absentee ballot, especially if they asked that it be sent to a different address, like a vacation home.